In the showbiz world, actor Hal Linden is perhaps best known for his long-running role as the title character on the classic television sitcom, “Barney Miller.”
In the Jewish community, meanwhile, Linden may be best known as the official spokesperson and “voice” of the nonprofit, Jewish National Fund-USA. Hal is even the one who greets you when you dial the organization’s main number.
“Hal is a true legend, an amazing actor, singer and musician,” JNF-USA National Campaign Director Sharon Joy said of Linden’s longtime involvement with the organization. “Hal has led many missions to Israel bringing so much pleasure to the participants who are always thrilled to be traveling with ‘Barney Miller.’ We are blessed to have Hal as our Jewish National Fund-USA spokesperson.”
Linden’s involvement with JNF-USA, which dates back close to 30 years, is a manifestation of his ardent support of Israel. Born Harold Lipschitz and raised in a secular household in the Bronx, Linden had a Zionist father who stressed the importance of the state of Israel, but it was only after World War II, when incidents came to light of the British denying displaced Jews entry into what was then known as Mandatory Palestine did the necessity of a Jewish homeland crystallize for the young Linden.
In advance of his 90th birthday, on March 20, the actor, musician and soon-to-be nonagenarian dished on how he plans to celebrate this milestone. Speaking to this reporter over the phone from his home in Marina Del Rey, Linden also discussed supporting Israel in the face of criticism, career longevity and ways COVID-19 has impacted the entertainment industry, including his beloved live theater, which served as one of his professional homes for more than four decades.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA): Happy Birthday! How do you plan to celebrate?
Hal Linden: I am not sure. I know JNF-USA is going to be holding a Zoom party for anyone that wants to log on. The celebration will be the day before my birthday, on March 19 at 11 am PT. They will do a big Zoom. I sent them email addresses of people they should invite. I don’t know what else they have planned. Let them surprise me.
JNF-USA: How will you celebrate your birthday with your family? Are you planning any personal celebrations?
Linden: I go on Zoom every Sunday with my kids—my four kids and eight grandchildren. Some group of that is always on every Sunday. We’ve been talking about it for a year now: ‘What are we going to do for your 90th birthday?’
JNF-USA: How have you seen JNF-USA evolve over the years?
Linden: The big thing I picked up on is how they are handling water. It is so much broader and more inclusive today. I will never forget going to a water research lab in Israel and one researcher had four or five boxes of strawberries, and he was showing how the drip irrigation system works.
JNF-USA: When someone calls the JNF-USA phone number, the first thing they hear is your voice greeting them: “Shalom, this is Hal Linden, thank you for calling Jewish National Fund, the central address for the land and people of Israel.” What is your reaction when people refer to you as the voice of JNF-USA?
Linden: It helps to know at least my voice is doing something.
JNF-USA: You were born before the founding of the modern state of Israel and, like others, have seen the country grow into an economic powerhouse, a world-class tourist destination and a place often under a lot of scrutiny. What is your reaction to criticism of Israel, particularly when it comes from Hollywood?
Linden: Just because I am in favor of the land of Israel, it’s the existence of the land of Israel that is necessary. When someone tells you go back to where you came from, there needs to be a place to go back to. It could get that bad anywhere in the world. It is important to have a place that will welcome you, and that’s the importance of Israel.
JNF-USA: How many times have you been to Israel?
Linden: Six or seven times.
JNF-USA: What was your most memorable trip there?
Linden: My 50th wedding anniversary. I asked my late wife, ‘What do you want to do?’ She said, ‘We’re all going to Israel. All your kids, all your grandchildren. I want them to know your passion, why you go out and do what you do.’ I called JNF-USA, and they got us a bus. We were 19 people, lots of kids. It was wonderful chaos. All the cousins together, all the kids back together. JNF-USA, knowing there were so many kids involved, took us to places I have never been back to, where we could ride donkeys, dress up as nomads, milk goats and things like that for the kids. It was probably the trip of our lives as a family. To this day, even the youngest ones remember it.
JNF-USA: What is your opinion on how COVID-19 has affected the entertainment business?
Linden: They are just starting to figure out ways to get stuff done—everything I had on my calendar is gone—but they have started to figure out certain big pictures or little pictures. I really fear for live theater. Broadway we called ‘The Great Invalid’ because it was dying, always on the verge of falling apart. It kind of got healthy again in the 1990s when Broadway became a corporate venture and we didn’t have to rely on great reviews. If Disney opened something, it would get people coming regardless of what the critics thought. In my day if we couldn’t get past the New York Times you were closing in a week. I closed too many shows because of the New York Times. It’s not vital now because of corporate backing.
JNF-USA: Do you still play music for yourself?
Linden: I still play the clarinet.
JNF-USA: Who is better, you or Woody Allen?
Linden: Woody is a good amateur.
JNF-USA: I am told you are a big supporter of JNF-USA’s Sunshine Mission, a 10-day tour of Israel for active adults ages 55-and-over. Are you planning to travel to Israel again on this tour?
Linden: If I can. Remember I am 90-years-old. As of now, yes. I can’t tell you exactly what is going to happen in a month.
JNF-USA: What is one thing about JNF-USA people don’t know that you’d like them to know?
Linden: To me the thing to say about JNF-USA is it works. It works. I have never seen a project that didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, and they set out to do so many different things.
JNF-USA: Have you gotten your COVID vaccine?
Linden: Both shots. I am a Moderna person. My lady-friend is Pfizer person, I don’t know if we can get too close together. Maybe my kids will do Johnson & Johnson.
JNF-USA: Where do your kids live?
Linden: Two on the East Coast and two on the West Coast, which is why the Zoom thing works wonderfully, because I was always in one place or the other. I used to go to the East Coast. I haven’t since this pandemic started. I would take a gig in New York and spend time with kids on the East Coast, come back and spend time with the kids on the West Coast. Now every Sunday we are on Zoom.
JNF-USA: How many people are on the call?
Linden: Depends. I’ve seen the screen full with at least my four kids showing up. Or three of them. I have a daughter who is a nurse, and she works on Sunday.
JNF-USA: What is the secret of your career longevity?
Linden: In the 70s, when Broadway hit and TV hit and my concert act hit, I was working and working and working, and someone said to me, “Don’t you ever take a vacation?” and I said, “I took all my vacations from 1957-1966. We referred to it as unemployment at the time.” Most of the time you are in-between jobs. At times I would be working all the time, at times wouldn’t be. You get used to it. In terms of longevity, it is easier today than in my day. Today you have all those outlets. When I was breaking through, there were three networks, that was it. Either you were on it or you weren’t. I have no idea how I did it. I went with the flow, and there was always something that was next.
Happy 90th Birthday, Hal Linden!
To learn more about Hal Linden’s Zoom birthday, email JNF-USA National Campaign Director, Sharon Joy at [email protected]. This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund.